Need some comfort to get you through January? Check out South Tyrol, says Suzanne Harrington, where they take saunas to the next level.
Think sauna and you probably imagine a small warm wooden box in the corner of the single-sex changing room, where you might pop in for 10 minutes wrapped tightly in a towel, silent and avoiding eye contact.
Think again. For there is ‘having a quick sauna’, and there is ‘doing sauna’. We’ve even been saying it wrong — it’s ‘sow-na’, not ‘saw-na’.
We traditionally associate Finland with serious sauna culture, but you don’t need to go that far north to experience it — jump on a plane to Innsbruck, and head south to South Tyrol, where sauna is next level, the ultimate in active relaxation. And social interaction.
Although geographically northern Italy and southern Austria, with everywhere signposted in Italian and German, South Tyrol is a place unto itself, culturally shaped by the Alps and the Dolomites, and lush mountain valleys between.
Hotel Quelle, an award-winning five star, family run ‘nature spa’, is nestled at 1400m in one of these chocolate box valleys, Valle di Casies, around 20km from the nearest little town, which has two names — Monguelfo in Italian, Welsberg in German. Its remoteness means the hotel is entirely self-contained — every need you could imagine, and plenty you hadn’t yet thought of, is catered for onsite.
The hotel, whose name is German for ‘source’, began life as a mountain inn in 1952; it has been owned and run by the same family ever since, and is warm, friendly and welcoming. Each dining table has personalised handwritten messages from the family welcoming each guest group, and you get a red rose and a jar of homemade jam when you leave.
Most of the staff have worked here forever, and you get to know everyone’s name after a day or two. In an era of digital anonymity, this is an absolute delight, and feels entirely unfaked.
It is at Hotel Quelle — a fairytale of carved wood, fresh flowers dripping from its wooden balconies, twinkly lights, extensive gardens, its own small hand-carved chapel in the grounds and a working water wheel, all surrounded by pine forests and summer farms — that I try Aufguss for the first time.
German for ‘infusion’. Aufguss is sociable, interactive sauna, which involves rousing music, clapping and cheering, tankers of iced apple juice, all led by the Aufgussmeister who expertly flaps a towel to billow clouds of herb and essential oil infused steam, heated to 90 degrees, all over everyone inside the sauna.
The steam wafts from balls of ice smashed on the coals. It is intense.
Everyone is unselfconsciously naked — bathing costumes are deemed unsanitary and unnecessary, and towels are just for sitting on – for the Aufguss ritual, which lasts about 11 minutes.
Any longer and you would probably pass out. Every year in the Tyrol region, there is the World Aufguss Championships – check it out on YouTube. It is quite bonkers.
After Aufguss, everyone decamps to the snow sauna next door, and rubs snow and ice all over their heated skin, or lowers themselves into a very, very cold plunge pool. (I don’t get beyond my knees in the outdoor plunge pool, but the snow sauna feels marvellous.) Afterwards, the feeling of zingy vitality is indescribably good.
Hotel Quelle has 10 different saunas and steam rooms, seven pools including a full size outdoor infinity pool, a biological bathing pond, and 6 chill out lounges to relax in after you’ve been steamed, salted, sweated, iced, plunged, whirled, sprayed and showered.
The infinity sauna is a huge wooden space overlooking a secluded garden; there is a waterwheel sauna, an edelweiss sauna, a herbal sauna, an infrared sauna, the snow sauna filled with actual snow, a salt cave (you scrub yourself, then hose off), steam rooms with tiled armchairs and giant quartz crystals, a room-sized womb-like salt pool (warm water that is 20% salt, lit only by candles — you float), and something called a Kniepp path, which is a series of water jets from warm to icy which you walk through (like a car wash) post-sauna.
The hotel is family oriented, so there is a whole separate area of pools, saunas and relaxation areas for parents and children, where swimming costumes are kept on, and kids can enjoy a hot tub and sauna the same as the adults.
There is also a beauty and treatment spa, which offers long, delicious massage and facials using local natural products, and a serious gym with instructors on hand to run Pilates, yoga and fitness classes, in case it’s raining and you want to wear yourself out and get sweaty pre-sauna.
The relaxation lounges are such that you could happily lie on an oil bed — like a water bed, but better — wrapped in a faux fur blanket all day long sipping herbal teas made by the hotel, or spend hours lying in a dimly lit room with day beds surrounding a giant crystal, listening to ambient music on headphones.
It’s tough. Mobile phones are not allowed anywhere near the relaxation spaces or saunas, which feels liberating, even as you automatically reach to Instagram the swinging chairs, giant cushions, and panoramic mountain views out the window.
The mountains provide the backdrop of a giant playground for exploration, no matter where your fitness levels are at. You can easily do a 40km bike trip through the valley to Monguelfo and back without being Tour de France fit, if you use an ebike (the hotel has a fleet of them, allowing you to power up hillsides with minimum effort).
I ride through the forest on bike tracks, feeling like Stephen Roche rather than an unfit 50-year-old, the woody scent of the pines and the clanking of cowbells overwhelming my senses.
It is what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing; it is deeply peaceful, the ebike tackling the hills as I absorb my traffic-free, concrete-free surroundings. It’s like cycling through The Sound of Music.
Or if you’re less lazy, you can hike, or do cross-country skiing in the winter (the valley is not a ski resort, which gives it quite a different, more chilled and peaceful vibe). The hotel provides hiking packs in each room, offers hiking guides, and has a mountain hut at higher altitude, where you can have lunch. Dairy is big here.
There are eight different kinds of local butter each day at the gourmet breakfast buffet, and homemade compotes and teas and cheeses. Which leads us on to...
Despite the health focus of the hotel’s facilities and its glorious high altitude surroundings, where everything is geared towards fresh air, exercise and the great outdoors, followed by serious sauna and pool action, this does not mean that you will be offered wheatgrass juice and a rice cake for your efforts.
No. This is where the five-star luxe comes in – the hotel restaurant is fine dining rather than deprivation, and Stefan the barman makes the best cocktails and mocktails in South Tyrol.
After dinner, if you can still stand up after the fine wines and gourmet food, there is a different kind of low key yet quirky entertainment each night. Piano playing, jazz musicians, sword display, movie night.
Or you can just go back to your massive comfortable room – there are 69, including some new luxury chalets serviced by the hotel - all of which are oases of velvet sofas, warm wood, and breathtaking views from the balcony.
As you drift off to sleep, look up at the ceiling — a glow in the dark constellation of tiny twinkly stars, mimicking the night sky outside, has been carefully arranged for your delight. The only downside of Hotel Quelle and the valley in which it nestles is that you may never want to leave.
All that clean air, hot steam, divine scenery, and deep, deep luxury becomes almost instantly habit forming. I was hooked.
Where: Innsbruck airport is 119km north – the hotel offers a taxi service for the two-hour drive, or get a (far cheaper) train to Monguelfo/Welsberg.
Venice is 250km south, or three hours drive/train.
How much: Prices start at €1,050pp based on 2 sharing for 6 nights full board. Family rooms – 3-5 people – start from €1,110pp. This price includes access to all facilities apart from spa treatments and drinks.